VA: Odds Would be in Light Rail's Favor in Referendum

April 09--VIRGINIA BEACH -- Why are boosters of light rail on the City Council eager to have a referendum in November? There will be a big turnout, they say, and that's good for democracy.

It also could attract just the kind of voters they want.

Pollsters say support to extend Norfolk's light-rail line into Virginia Beach is high among those more likely to vote in November because of the presidential election: Democrats, independents, young people and black voters.

"You wouldn't want to have this question on the ballot with a bunch of Republican state senators and delegates on the ballot unopposed," said Brian Kirwin, a political consultant in Virginia Beach, describing essentially what happened last November, when several Republicans ran unopposed.

He added, "Every statistic in the polling I've done shows the broadest turnout favors a 'yes' vote on light rail."

Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University, agreed.

"If I supported light rail, I'd want it on the ballot because it seems the support is high right now," he said.

President Barack Obama won in 2008 with high turnout from Democrats, young people and African Americans. If those groups vote in force again, it could be good news for light-rail advocates, even though Obama narrowly lost to Sen. John McCain in Virginia Beach.

Kidd and Kirwin have conducted polls on light rail in Virginia Beach and say its support is either 59 or 76 percent, depending on the poll. They were taken at different times and asked different questions.

On Tuesday, the City Council is scheduled to discuss whether to schedule the referendum in November although a vote on the idea isn't likely until later this month, said Councilman John Uhrin, who sponsored a resolution that calls for the referendum this year.

As written now, the resolution asks, "Should the City Council adopt an ordinance approving the expansion of The Tide light rail system into the City of Virginia Beach?"

Some council members would prefer that the phrasing of the question include the estimated cost -- $807 million to extend the line to the Oceanfront and $254 million to extend it to Town Center. Others want to delay a referendum until next year's completion of a Hampton Roads Transit study on light rail in Virginia Beach. The referendum would be advisory only; the council would make any final decision.

In a referendum held in 1999, Beach voters rejected light rail by 56 to 44 percent.

The big question in Kidd's poll, conducted in November, asked, "Would you approve or disapprove of expanding light rail to add new lines...?"

Democrats showed the most enthusiasm for approval, independents were split almost evenly and Republicans were more likely to disapprove, the poll showed. People under 55 were more likely to approve extending light rail than those over 55, with those between 18 and 24 the most enthusiastic. Black voters were much more likely to approve light rail than white voters, the poll showed.

Responses to the question "Do you generally view light rail as important to the region's transportation future or not important..." broke down along similar demographic lines.

Kirwin did his poll in March 2010, when The Tide was mired in cost overruns and issues about the leadership at Hampton Roads Transit.

He asked, "Do you favor or oppose a plan to extend light rail from Norfolk into Virginia Beach?"

While 39 percent "strongly" supported light rail and 28 percent "strongly" opposed, he was most interested in what those in the middle had to say. Twenty percent "somewhat" favored light rail and 9 percent "somewhat" opposed it. He called those people the "ambivalents" and said they are likely to vote in 2012.

"If you have a broad turnout, the ambivalent people also show, and... have 2-1 margin of support for light rail," he said.

Councilman Uhrin said he's aware polls show light rail appears to be popular now.

"If polling shows the general public is supportive, you're probably more likely to have those results replicated in a referendum."

Aaron Applegate, 757-222-5122

Copyright 2012 - The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.